Nov 26, 2014
Tea Party Tribune
Tea Party Tribune
Tea Party and Political News Reporting

The Hidden Supernova of Music

   

Big Star for a Bill Ellis storyI have an alter ego in the blogosphere. Here, it’s politics, but on Facebook I blog about popular music, usually leaning heavily towards rock and roll. And until a few days ago I never imagined that there would be any ideological cross-pollination to worry about. But then I had an epiphany…

I’ll start my little tale here- I blog about music to promote a fiction book that I wrote 3 years ago. The book is about a garage band from the early 70’s that was on the cusp of making it big, but then fell just short. I plot an improbable future success for the fictional band decades after they break up and go their separate ways, and then have some fun as our heroes revitalize and re-energize the sad state of contemporary music. Why is this relevant to the discussion of culture and politics today? Wait for it…

In my Facebook blog alter ego I feign expertise in the music industry. Do that, and you’re forced to become an expert, so daily research is often necessary. In the course of my research I happened upon a Rolling Stone (the magazine) Top 500 Rock Songs of all time list. As I scanned the list few names were unfamiliar to me, as I expected. At number 180 though I took note of a song, and a band, that I had never heard of.

But that wasn’t enough to send me down a rabbit hole looking for what I assumed to be marginal music, so I just kept scanning. At number 401 I happened upon the band again, so at that point my curiosity was piqued.

Big Star’s first album was titled #1 Record. Straight out of gate with a name like Big Star and an egotistical album cover self-proclaimed as a “Number One Record” it was clear that the band that I had unearthed felt that they had superior material, regardless of what anyone else thought.

They did. #1 Record is one of the great albums of the 70’s and NO ONE has ever heard of it. I know because I have asked many people as a test, and I’ve never found anyone who has ever heard of Big Star yet.

It was an intriguing mystery to say the least. How could a band from Memphis, Tennessee, produce a superior rock album only to have it completely disappear after its initial release?

A question that may have already occurred to you, also occurred to me. Was this first album the end? Nope. A year later they release a 2nd album that was also, in my humble opinion, fantastic. The 2nd album had the song September Gurls, which is the song that to this day sits proudly at the 180 slot on RS’s top 500 list. It’s almost a certainty that you have never heard it either, it also flopped horribly.  They produced yet another album a year later, and couldn’t even find a distributor until 1978, and at that point Big Star did not even exist as a band anymore.

I have puzzled over this for well over a year now, and it has occurred to me that this story is strangely similar to the book that I wrote long before I had even heard of Big Star, and that correlation may have played a role in my initial interest of course. But now I have listened to all of their music, and I am supremely confident that they deserved airplay long ago. For some reason it was denied to them.

As I tested the various songs from the three albums I have became more and more incredulous. I wondered with each new discovery how it was possible that Big Star never made it. I think that I finally have the answer.

Early on I noticed a few overtly religious songs intermingled with what the casual listener would classify as standard rock and roll fare. From the first album, The Battle of El Goodo, which should also be on RS’s list, drops the line, “and at my side is God,” seemingly apropos of nothing. And this isn’t the “God is a tree, and a tree is God” deity that George Harrison et al sang about, this is the Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testament. Other songs from that first album make that clear. If you need further convincing the song Jesus Christ makes the playlist down the road.

This is not a “Christian” band however, and even if it was the progenitor of what has become a genre, Big Star, the hidden supernova of rock, just sang about God without proselytizing or being contrived. Alex Chilton, the chief songwriter for the band, simply wrote honest songs about his world. He was a Memphis boy, no doubt steeped in a southern religion just like everyone else at that time. It would have be easy for him to avoid the subject, but it is my contention that he was unwilling to do that. (Chilton is yet another story for another time.)

And here I think I’ve finally found the answer. Soon after Big Star signed with the record company Stax, Columbia bought them, and Columbia Records simply refused to distribute Big Star’s first album. It would be easy to assume that someone at Columbia just didn’t like that “Big Star” sound, but even this doesn’t explain refusing to issue what had already been produced. Columbia didn’t have to promote the band, all they had to do was press vinyl and put it in the stores.

I think it’s highly likely that Big Star’s references to God were its undoing in the corporate boardroom. Columbia Records was big enough to exercise a little political correctness even if profits took a hit. Big Star was a non-entity singing about an uncomfortable subject in 1971, they were expendable.

In the drugs, sex, and rock and roll universe of that era even the occasional acknowledgement of Jesus were unacceptable. So Alex Chilton and Big Star never had a chance. When other lesser bands were lavishly promoted, their record company failed to perform even perfunctory obligations. The only difference between them and the few bands of similar talent that I have detected is their unwillingness to avoid the standard American religious narrative.

The fight to make things right has found a perch here. On a recent road trip it occurred to me that Big Star is still excluded to this day. The standard “oldies” playlist that every classic rock station uses has been passed down mindlessly by the same corporate trolls who are still making the decisions on what constitutes the “best” music of the 60’s and 70’s.

The next time you have the opportunity to call a request line, ask for September Gurls. When you hear it in an elevator, some lazy afternoon in the distant future, you’ll know that Big Star’s supernova shine has finally arrived.

 

Jim Funkhouser

Howdy, my name is Jim Funkhouser and I write almost as well as Sarah Palin (verified at 7th grade level). I live in the kid-friendly town of Elberfeld. This lovely hamlet is located in God's Country (Indiana), US of A. My other blog, which you are cordially invited to attend, can be located easily by googling 'the' 'zonks' 'facebook'. There I do my best to reveal the best of 60's and 70's pop, rock, blues, and even country from time to time. Married for 29 years to lovely Rosanna Marie, with ten fantastic kids (Jimmy, Matthew, Aaron, Emily, Daniel (soon to be King), Niklaus, Madeline, Christopher, Wyatt, and the one and only Lucianne Marie. (Obviously all money collected in the tip jar will find its way into various nintendo and playstation software and hardware.) Please check out my book at Barnes and Noble or Amazon: We Were the Zonks! Email me at thezonks@gmail.com.
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6 Comments

  1. Tom

    July 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Jim – many of us can agree with your sentiment about what might have been Columia Record's executives' reasons for not distributing the Big Star album. Your assumption might satisfy a lot of people's sentiments. Unfortunately for your assumption, it is not proof and the industry had both other examples of records that never saw a radio show's turntable, and disagreements across the board on the musical prowess of many performers. Your opinion "sounds nice" to many ears, but the truth is we will never know the answer; unless family archives of the band members or Columbia Records gives up the real skinny. Meanwhile, the good work of your article is that you have introduced and re-introduced Big Star to many people. As one of them, thanks for that.

    • jim

      July 31, 2012 at 7:19 pm

      Of course no one can know for sure, I think that's understood. But I have puzzled over this a good long while. And I have listened to most of BS's discography. I was stunned at the near gospel sound of some of their songs, but never thought that was pertinent until much later. I arrived at my belief by eliminating all the other possibilities. Lesser music, much much lesser music, was promoted often by Columbia and others. Studio time was not needed here. #1 Record was packaged and out the door and simply needed to be placed on trucks. Literally people were hearing it on the radio and not finding it anywhere. No one makes two trips to the record store, and not selling means not charting, and not charting leads to not playing. This is not recent information for me, just a recent conclusion.

  2. jim

    August 1, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Lyrics from Try Again (#1 Record)-
    Lord I've been trying to be what I should
    Lord I've been trying to do what I could
    But each time it gets a little harder
    I feel the pain
    But I'll try again
    Lord I've been trying to be understood
    And Lord I've been trying to do as you would
    But each time it gets a little harder
    I feel the pain
    But I'll try again

  3. jim

    August 1, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Lyrics from My Life is Right (Big Star, #1 Record)

    Once I walked a lonely road
    Had no one to share my love
    But then you came and showed the way
    And now I hope you're here to stay
    You give me light
    You are my day
    You give me life
    And that's right
    You give me light
    You are my day
    You give me life
    And that's right
    So right
    So right, so right
    Lonely age of uncertainty
    They disappear when you're near me
    When you're around my life's worthwhile
    And now I long to see you smile
    You give me light
    You are my day
    You give me life
    And that's right

  4. jim

    August 1, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Lyrics from Watch the Sunrise (Big Star #1 Record)

    I can feel it, now it's time
    Open your eyes
    Fears be gone, it won't be long
    There's a light in the sky
    It's okay to look outside
    The day it will abide
    And watch the sunrise
    Sun, it shines on all of us
    We are one in it's hand
    Come inside and light my room
    Like the heart of every man
    It's okay to look outside
    The day it will abide
    And watch the sunrise
    I can feel it, now it's time
    Open your eyes
    Fears be gone, it won't be long
    There's a light in the sky
    It's okay to look outside
    Your love it will abide
    And watch the sunrise

  5. jim

    August 1, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Lyrics from The Battle of El Goodo (Big Star #1 Record)

    I've been built up and trusted
    Broke down and busted
    But they'll get theirs and we'll get ours
    Just if we can
    Just, ah, hold on
    Hold on
    Hold on
    Hold on

    Years ago my heart was set to live, oh
    But I've been trying hard against strong odds
    It gets so hard at times like now to hold on
    Well, I'll fall if I don't fight
    And at my side is God

    Ain't no one gonna turn me 'round

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